Investing in the American Workforce

21 Jun

With some 12 million unemployed Americans, it’s hard to imagine that many sectors are threatened because they can’t find the right workers. But that is precisely the case in many industries that require a skilled labor force. From Iowa to California and everywhere in between, employers have been searching for workers with the necessary training to get the job done. While there is much talk about providing incentives for job creators, investment in workers (or “job-doers”) hasn’t really become part of the political discourse. As we continue to divest in the public school system and provide a modicum of funding for workforce development programs, what other models are out there providing workers with the skills they need to better their job prospects and advance our economy?

New public-private programs are emerging to address this growing need. One of the largest programs is operated by Cisco Systems.  The Cisco Networking Academy Program is offered through classes at traditional educational institutions that have been certified by Cisco to offer their curriculum based on networking solutions. Program participants are prepared to assume entry-level information and communication technology careers “in virtually every type of industry.” Students have the option of working towards a certificate in seven different categories, each of which are offered at five levels of expertise. Cisco classes are currently offered all over the world in a variety of languages. In Los Angeles alone, there are twenty-one schools that offer Cisco classes.

Another model starts as early as kindergarten to prepare students for the evolving workforce. In San Bernardino County, a combination of poor test scores and high dropout rates convinced the County Superintendent, in conjunction with community leaders, to create the Alliance for Education.  The program begins in elementary school and continues through high school with a focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education. Students who participate in this program have higher test scores and better attendance records than the average San Bernardino County student.

The Austin Polytechnical Academy (APA) in Chicago presents a different model focused on high school students.  APA is a college and career preparatory high school founded by the Chicago Manufacturing Renaissance Council in 2007 to provide a consistent stream of educated and skilled young people to provide leadership in all aspects of manufacturing.  Heavily influenced by best practices from Germany, APA aims to fill a workforce development gap [PDF] for the region’s advanced manufacturers.  In four years, 111 APA students have earned 156 industry-recognized certifications from the National Institute for Metalworking skills, in addition to receiving a traditional liberal arts curriculum.  Students have the opportunity to take Advanced Placement classes, travel to Washington D.C., and take ACT preparation courses – all of this while simultaneously preparing for a career in advanced manufacturing.

The Alliance for Education and the Austin Polytechnical Academy represent models of engaging community, non-profit, local business and educational partners in the enterprise of providing students with the enhanced and focused skills the modern workplace demands.  As public schools continue to grapple with budget cuts and school reform efforts and policymakers search for new models of economic development there is a good chance that these new approaches to investing in the American workforce will gain steam.

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